Mother and child in a homeless shelter, Dallas, 1986
Tramps, bums, drifters, grate people -- no matter what the pejorative label, there seemed to be a lot of homeless people on urban streets in the 1980s. Estimates of their number ranged from 300,000 to three million. (It is probable that on any given night there were 700,000 people in the U.S. without shelter, while a quarter of a million roamed the streets as "hardcore" homeless.) As the decade progressed, more and more Americans became aware of the plight of the displaced persons, so that by 1988 a majority of those polled believed the homeless to be a top priority, not to mention a national disgrace. But homelessness proved to be an intractable problem. Debate swirled not only over how to solve the problem but also as to who or what was responsible for the problem in the first place.
Many experts pointed to the "deinstitutionalizing" of patients in mental hospitals that occurred in the Sixties and Seventies as part of the problem. In the early 1960s, days of heady and high-minded social reform, the decision was made to begin closing the "snake pits" -- mental hospitals -- and to create a new system of local mental health centers. To that end, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Act in 1963. It was hoped that new wonder drugs would enable many patients to function once they were reintroduced into society. The result: the number of patients in state mental hospitals declined from over 500,000 in 1960 to 150,000 twenty years later. But community-based services were not adequate to take up the slack; by 1988 it was estimated that most of the nation's largest cities had no more than 10% of the institutional placements necessary for the mentally ill.
Where, then, did the mentally ill go? By the mid-Eighties, reliable studies revealed that about one-third of the homeless fell into this category. Some were former mental hospital patients while the rest were younger mentally ill individuals who had never received institutional care. And the other two-thirds of the homeless? According to Dr. Irwin Perr of the Rutgers Medical School, the conventional wisdom was that 25-50% had alcohol or drug abuse problems. The rest were the "new poor" -- the jobless or those displaced by the gentrification of inner city areas. The number in low-income families unable to find affordable housing rose from 8.9 million in 1974 to 11.9 million in 1983. In New York City, tax abatements in the early '80s encouraged developers to replace flophouses with luxury condominiums. Similar urban policies had the same effect across the nation. Restrictions on the sale and rent rates of subsidized federal housing, approved in the 1960s, were expiring. Between 1974 and 1983, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, nearly 900,000 SRO (single-occupancy units) that rented for less than $200/month were lost. The number of SROs in New York fell by 89%, from 127,000 to 14,000. Where once the ranks of the homeless were dominated by single men, now at least a third were families without homes, often unwed mothers with small children.
The Reagan administration was slow to acknowledge the problem, much less respond constructively to it. In 1981, the federal government's Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program was designed to deliver surplus agricultural products to the needy. But by 1986 it was clear that almost none of this food was actually getting to the homeless. The president was chastised by activists when he stated that most street people were in that situation because they chose to be. Presidential Counsellor Edwin Meese claimed that people went to soup kitchens because they didn't want to pay for their meals. Reagan and Meese were clearly mistaken; the majority of the homeless did not choose or prefer their fate -- a life of little sleep, little food, and precious little social interaction. "I'm getting to the point where I can't talk to people," admitted a Philadelphia homeless man named Red. Violence was a fact of life; nearly every homeless person would be beaten, robbed or raped at least once. In some cities, the police rousted the homeless out of public parks and subway systems.
A proliferation of panhandlers complicated the issue. In 1988, New York City Mayor Ed Koch launched a crusade to rid the sreets of an estimated 5,000 beggars. "Many people who panhandle just don't want to work for a living," insisted Koch. They were con artists and addicts, said the mayor, and they were becoming a menace to decent folk. (In Seattle, a man was beaten to death after spurning a panhandler, prompting the city to ban "aggressive begging," with violators facing 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.) Some social workers agreed with Koch, claiming that relatively few of those who begged needed the money for a legitimate reason. They argued also that if people stopped giving to panhandlers it would force those who needed alcohol and drug treatment to seek professional help. Some of the truly needy complained that panhandlers were making things even more difficult for them. "Most panhandlers are phony," said a Vietnam vet named Jerome, who had lost a leg in the war and asked for donations from passersby at Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station. "They're drug addicts, drunks, bums or punks who don't want to work." In Los Angeles, Jeffrey Allman and Tracy Hartland, the so-called "Yuppie Panhandlers," were arrested in August 1988 and charged with 22 counts of theft for conning people in supermarket parking lots, bringing in up to $200-an-hour. Both were aspiring actors who managed a West Hollywood building and lived in a rent-free apartment.
Such stories hardened many hearts towards those who were really in need. In Los Angeles, a member of the county board of supervisors suggested loading all the city's homeless onto a barge anchored in the harbor. In El Paso, Texas, billboards urged people not to give to beggars because it caused traffic problems. And a Ft. Lauderdale, Florida city commissioner wanted to put rat poison in dumpsters to discourage street people from foraging.
The federal government belatedly tried to address the problem. While federal support for subsidized housing had been slashed from $32 billion in 1981 to $7.5 billion in 1988, the Reagan administration sought to subsidize low-rent tenants with cash vouchers given directly to the poor. But that didn't always help in a nation where housing prices had increased nearly 50% in less than a decade; even with vouchers many poor families couldn't find affordable shelter. Reagan then signed the MicKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which authorized $1 billion in aid over two years. The 1986 tax reform package offered corporations a tax credit for investments in low-income housing. And in 1988 the president signed the Housing and Community Development Act, which assisted 152,000 needy families and called for the renovation of 10,000 public housing units. In addition, Congress appropriated over $200 million in the mid-Eighties to be dispersed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These were steps in the right direction, but didn't provide nearly enough funding to have a significant impact. A study suggested the country would need 7.5 million new low-income housing units by the year 2000; estimated cost: $300 billion. Faced by record budget deficits, the administration hoped supply-side economics would provide cities and states with more funds to finance their own remedies. It was largely left up to local governments, churches and community groups, and private citizens to make a difference.
By easing building codes and providing development loans, San Diego inspired the construction of five new SRO hotels. In New York City, an $80 million project to build 1,000 low-income apartments was launched; $25 million of the cost was raised by corporations. (In all, New York City would spend $500 million to help the homeless in 1988; the only problem was that an estimated $12 billion more was needed.)The Chicago Equity Fund, a consortium of Fortune 500 companies, provided capital for similar projects in the Windy City. Activists in that city (and others) negotiated with landlords to prevent evictions, and acquired rent loans. Washington DC's Zacchaeus Medical Clinic was funded entirely by church and community groups as well as individual donors. In Los Angeles, the "Village Concept" had mental health workers riding a weekly circuit to visit patients in sublet apartments, and the city built its first public shelter in 1985 -- right across the street from Thieves Corner, where the homeless had slept on discarded couches and car seats. The citys SRO Housing Corporation bought up 11 skid-row hotels for $12 million. In the nation's capital, outspoken activist Mitch Snyder, director of the DC Community for Creative Non-Violence, got a referendum passed that made the city responsible for guaranteeing "adequate overnight shelter" for all who could not afford it. A Massachusetts law changed the rules to allow welfare payments to people without permanent addresses. New Jersey paid delinquent rents to prevent the eviction of 8,000 families in 1987. The Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association of Memphis leased foreclosed HUD properties for $1 a year -- and made sure that each tenant family was provided with essentials, including a telephone to facilitate job-hunting.
But other localities took an entirely different approach. In Phoenix, the preferred destination of many out-of-work Northerners, three soup kitchens and ten welfare hotels were closed or torn down. The Chamber of Commerce distributed anti-homeless bumper stickers, showing a big slash through the silhouette of a person sleeping on a park bench. And in Greenwich Village, barbed wire was strung over hot-air grates to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them.
There were some who argued that the effort to find housing for the homeless was, as Time Magazine's David Whitman put it, "as effective as a Band-Aid on a bullet wound." The real need was to rehabilitate, not warehouse, displaced persons. Job training and psychiatric counseling would do more to solve the problem in the long run. Dr. Rodger Farr opened a skid row mental health clinic in Los Angeles, dispatching teams of dedicated social workers to seek out those in need of help. Farr knew you had to take that help to the homeless, who were often too disoriented, too ill or simply too afraid to go in search of it. The non-profit Community Occupational Readiness and Placement Program (CORPP) in Philadelphia provided homeless men and women with an 11-week job training program; in the process, CORPP sought to establish a peer-support group, necessary because most of the homeless were isolated, without friends, family or church to turn to in times of crisis. Street people needed a support system most of all. As Sister Marie Sullivan of Atlanta's Christian Emergency Help Centers put it, "Somebody who is homeless has lost everything." Not just a home.
Death in the Cities
The press played its part in publicizing the homeless crisis, often focusing on the tragic suffering of street people during the winter months. It was pointed out that on the morning Ronald Reagan delivered his second inaugural address -- indoors under the Capitol dome due to inclement winter weather -- a homeless man was found frozen to death in a derelict house just a few miles away. (Inaugural partygoers and caterers donated leftovers to Washington homeless shelters; Waiters in tuxedos from Ridgewell's catering service supplied 1,000 homeless with hams, shrimp, quiche and crab claws.) Three years earlier, a decorated World War II veteran died of exposure on a bench in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. In Phladelphia, Pittsburgh and other cities, police removed the homeless from the streets when temperatures plummeted to a dangerous level. But when Mayor Koch of New York City -- where nearly 30 displaced persons had perished over the course of several winters -- implemented a similar plan, the New York Civil Liberties Union denounced it as an unconstitutional restraint on personal freedom.
The Economist, 25 December 1982, 3 December 1983, 21 December 1985, 7 February 1987, 7 November 1987
Newsweek, 6 January 1986, 21 March 1988, 4 April 1988, 11 April 1988
U.S. News & World Report, 30 January 1984, 29 February 1988
Time, 19 December 1983, 4 February 1985, 2 December 1985, 2 February 1987, 5 September 1988, 24 October 1988
Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America
Jonathan Kozol (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988)